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Stopping By God's House on Vacation

August 05, 2000|WILLIAM LOBDELL | William Lobdell, editor of Times Community News, looks at faith as a regular contributor to The Times' Orange County religion page. His e-mail address is

There's a tiny Catholic church in Maui where they play ukuleles instead of organs, wear Hawaiian shirts instead of robes, have open windows to the ocean instead of stained glass.

There's a lively Baptist church just outside Little Rock, Ark., where the Gospel choir rocks, the congregation hold hands, the preacher is all fire and brimstone.

And there's a stunning Episcopal cathedral high on a hill here in San Francisco, where Nob Hill swells sit next to leather-clad men, street people walk down the side aisles with their shopping carts in tow, a jazz band accompanies the choir.

I know these things because on vacation I'll occasionally sneak away on a Sunday morning and go to church. You can go to all the museums, restaurants and shopping malls you want, but the best way to get a real taste of a city's culture is to see how it worships. As a bonus, you get a little God thrown in for free.

I'm not the first to make that discovery. Last weekend at San Francisco's landmark Grace Cathedral, Father Alan Jones asked how many visitors there were in the packed sanctuary.

A forest of hands sprang up, representing more than half of the congregation. Grace officials estimate the church attracts more than 600 out-of-towners each Sunday in the summer.

During the week, even more visitors explore the cathedral, which is on most tourists' must-see list, not far behind Fisherman's Wharf, the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The cathedral's history goes back a century and a half to when Grace Church was founded during the Gold Rush of 1849. The church moved to its current location after the 1906 earthquake destroyed the home of the Crockers--of banking and railroad fame--and the family gave its Nob Hill land to the Episcopal diocese for a cathedral.

Construction on the massive French-Gothic building began in 1928 and was completed in 1964. It's the third-largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation.

From its main doors, which feature bronze replicas of 15th century sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti's "Doors of Paradise," to the cathedral carillon of 44 bells, the building holds as much interest as--and more history than--the abandoned prison on nearby Alcatraz.

(If you want more, you can get a well-done virtual tour of the church at )

As nice as its bricks, mortar and stained glass are, like all churches, the building doesn't show its real beauty until services start on Sunday morning. Out-of-towners have an advantage here. They can pick from any house of worship in town. Ask the taxi driver, hotel concierge or restaurant hostess for the best church to visit, and before long, a favorite will emerge.

When you attend services at a city's prized church, you never quite know what you'll experience.

Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham have preached from Grace's pulpit. On Sunday, Robert Fulghum, who wrote the best-seller "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," gave a touching, tear-producing sermon. He preached about the yearning all of us have to be included and the ability all of us have to include others.

He got the message across through a story about a peculiar boy named Norman who wanted to play the part of an unscripted pig in a children's version of "Cinderella" and his loving teacher who let him. If you want to listen to the sermon on the church's Web site, stop reading now because I'm going to tell you the ending: Norman, playing Cinderella's pet pig, stole the show.

The other surprise came from some visiting musicians. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band from San Antonio played side by side with the organ and choir. It was an unusual but very pleasant mix that seemed to startle the congregation initially, so much so that halfway through "Amazing Grace," Father Jones, a witty Englishman, abruptly stopped the music. He walked down the cathedral's main aisle and gently chastised the congregation for its awful singing. I'm doing a better job, he said, and I'm an Episcopalian!

The jazz band started up again, and the singing, good and loud, filled the cathedral with the last stanza of "Amazing Grace," followed by a thunderous round of applause. The churchgoers--socialites, tattooed bikers, young dot-com families--seemed rather pleased with themselves.

It was an unexpected, satisfying moment, liken watching Hawaiians play hymns on their ukuleles, like seeing a Baptist congregation in the South holding hands across the aisle while praying. It was like listening to a best-selling author hold an audience spellbound with a tale about Cinderella's pet pig, a role played to perfection by Norman.

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